Lyle Spencer

Mathis' value extends far beyond box score

Underrated Marlins catcher provides defense, guidance to pitchers

Mathis' value extends far beyond box score

Jose Fernandez's five hitless, scoreless innings on Tuesday against the Red Sox's varsity in the Grapefruit League on Tuesday didn't count, of course -- unless you're a Marlins fan entertaining that implausible October dream.

A healthy, productive Fernandez changes everything in Miami. He gives his team a No. 1 starter to match up with anybody. It's a nice place to start if you're planning upward mobility in the National League East.

It escaped notice, naturally, that Jeff Mathis was behind the plate, calling Jose's pitches in his big comeback from Tommy John surgery. Mathis, the veteran backup, has been with Fernandez from day one.

You see them in the dugout between innings, talking strategy, hitters' tendencies, all the little things that add up in the final equation. Fernandez knows what so many fans and insiders don't seem to get: Mathis is the most underrated Major League player of the past decade.

Mathis' bases-clearing double

Statistical mavens like to ridicule Mathis, pointing to his career .194/.254/.306 slash line. The heat of August (.163 in 156 games) has buried him. In some minds, Mathis has been the worst player over the past decade, not the most undervalued.

If they want an argument, they can have a word with any pitcher who has worked with Mathis since he emerged with the Angels in 2007, sharing the catching duties with best buddy Mike Napoli.

That year, the Angels began a run of rare excellence. They were 291-195 in three American League West-winning campaigns from 2007-09, with a winning percentage of .599.

With Mathis starting, the Halos were 138-82 with a .627 winning percentage during that time.

Manager Mike Scioscia had a solid rotation and dominant bullpen. The staff ERAs in those three seasons were 4.23, 3.99 and 4.45, respectively. With Mathis behind the plate, those numbers dipped to 3.89, 3.65 and 3.99. His defense was worth almost a half-run a game.

Each October brought heartbreak for Angels fans. They watched their team bow twice to the Red Sox in the AL Division Series before finally sweeping Boston in 2009 -- only to fall to the Yankees in six draining AL Championship Series games.

The Halos' most dangerous postseason hitter those three seasons -- believe it or not -- was Mathis. He hit .450 with a .700 slugging mark in 21 plate appearances.

Torching the Yankees, Mathis hit .583 with five doubles. One of those doubles was a game-winner that plated Howie Kendrick, who had singled, in the bottom of the 11th of Game 3. Angel Stadium hadn't roared like that since 2002.

Mathis' walk-off double

A tremendous high school football player in Marianna, Fla., recruited by Florida State as a quarterback and defensive back, Mathis has that rare knack of locking in mentally when it mattered most.

The Marlins have a developing receiver of quality in J.T. Realmuto, who will handle the bulk of the duties. Mathis, 33, is his daily resource, a role the veteran handles comfortably, happily.

But facts tell a story of comfort. Fernandez is 22-9 with a 2.40 ERA in 47 career starts. He has a 1.95 ERA with Mathis handling 21 of those assignments.

Some analysts dismiss catchers ERA as relatively meaningless. But there's a history of evidence supporting Mathis, just as it does for Yadier Molina, the Cardinals' gold standard.

Dan Haren retired with a 3.75 ERA over his sterling career. Mathis handled 35 of his starts for the Angels, and Haren's ERA in those games was 2.40. Strip those 234 2/3 innings and his career ERA is 3.88.

The Halos had four regular starters during the Mathis/Napoli years. Each was better by degrees with Mathis calling and handling pitches.

• John Lackey had a 3.25 ERA in 41 games with Mathis and a 3.63 ERA in 61 games with Napoli.
• Jered Weaver had a 3.20 ERA in 96 games with Mathis and a 3.89 ERA in 65 games with Napoli.
Ervin Santana had a 3.84 ERA in 76 games with Mathis and a 5.01 ERA in 42 games with Napoli.
• Joe Saunders had a 4.12 ERA in 36 games with Mathis and a 4.20 ERA in 71 games with Napoli.

Mathis' heads-up play

The point is not to denigrate Napoli, a far superior offensive player who would have been thrilled to be a first baseman/designated hitter. Napoli put his roommate on another level defensively.

"Jeff's the best," the Indians' new first baseman once confided. "He's a great athlete back there, quick as a cat. I'm just a big guy trying to get the job done.

"Put us together," Napoli said, grinning, "and you'd have Johnny Bench."

That might have been a stretch, but the sentiment was on target.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.